Bowel Cancer Awareness Month

Bowel cancer is the second most common cancer in Australian men and women, and is most common over the age of 50. Around 300 Australians will be diagnosed with bowel cancer this week… it will claim the lives of 103 us in that time too (that’s >5k per year) – but it’s one of the most treatable cancers when found early.

What is Bowel Cancer?

Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, can affect any part of the large bowel or rectum; it may also be referred to as colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on where the cancer is located. Most bowel cancers start as benign, non-threatening growths – called polyps – on the wall or lining of the bowel. Polyps are usually harmless; but some polyps can become malignant when undetected, developing into a cancerous tumour. In advanced cases, the cancer can spread beyond the bowel to other organs.

Causes of Bowel Cancer

  • Inherited genetic risk and/or family history
  • Excessive red meat consumption, especially charred and processed meats
  • Smoking
  • High alcohol consumption
  • Overweight or obese
  • Pre-existing conditions such as Type II Diabetes, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease

The choices you make around diet, lifestyle, screening and surveillance directly influence your bowel cancer risk. Because you can change or modify these risk factors, they are referred to as ‘modifiable’. Increased age, personal and family health history and hereditary conditions can also influence your bowel cancer risk. Because you cannot change these risk factors, they are referred to as ‘non-modifiable’.

Family History

Having a relative, especially an immediate family member such as a parent, sibling or child with bowel cancer, can increase your risk of developing bowel cancer.

For example, if either of your parents were diagnosed with bowel cancer before age 55 you would be considered to have a moderate bowel cancer risk. If you have three close relatives diagnosed with bowel cancer at any age, you would be considered to have a high bowel cancer risk. In both examples, it is advisable to see your GP for individual advice about bowel cancer surveillance or screening.

Screening & Surveillance

Bowel Cancer Australia recommends participating in screening appropriate to your personal level of risk. For people at average risk of bowel cancer, medical guidelines recommend screening using a faecal immunochemical test (FIT) every 2 years from age 50.

However, if you have one relative diagnosed with bowel cancer at age 55 years or older, screening should be considered every 2 years from age 45. More regular surveillance may be recommended for people with a family or personal history of bowel cancer and/or if there is an otherwise high bowel cancer risk.

Diet & Lifestyle

The choices you make can influence your bowel cancer risk. For the latest information on modifiable risk factors for bowel cancer – including consumption of red and processed meat, alcohol, fruits and vegetables, fibre and engagement in physical activity – download this free resource – Modifiable Risk Factors – Understanding Bowel Cancer.

Symptoms of Bowel Cancer

In its early stages bowel cancer often has no obvious symptoms but any of the following may be suggestive of bowel cancer;

  • Persistent change in bowel habit (looser bowel movements, constipation, or smaller more frequent bowel movements)
  • Change in appearance of bowel movements
  • Blood in the bowel movement or rectal bleeding
  • Unexplained tiredness, weakness or weight loss
  • Abdominal pain, especially if severe
  • A lump or pain in the rectum or anus
  • Persistent abdominal discomfort, such as cramps, gas or pain
  • A feeling that your bowel doesn’t empty completely

Not everyone who experiences these symptoms has bowel cancer. Many other medical conditions, some foods and certain medicines can also cause these sorts of changes. However, if you are experiencing any of these symptoms for more than two weeks, don’t delay in talking to your GP about them. Remember that early detection could save your life. No matter your age, you are never ‘too young’ for bowel cancer.

Exercise to beat Bowel Cancer

According to Bowel Cancer Australia recreational exercise can reduce colon (not rectal) cancer by 16%… but in those aged 18-24 years, 45% of men and 51% of women are insufficiently active; for those aged 55-64, 54% of men and 60% of women are insufficiently active.

What should you do? Aim to be physically active (where your heart rate is elevated), every day in any way for 30 minutes or more. As your fitness improves, increase the length of time you are active to 60 minutes or engage in more vigorous activity.

Limiting sedentary habits is also important so think about how much time you spend moving and how much time you spend sitting, then think about the ways you can begin to tip the balance in your favour.

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